Phyllis Hyman comes across as someone with a strong creative ethic. She was a strong soul/gospel/jazz vocal powerhouse,not to mention an attractive,stylish 6′ tall physical presence. The arc of her life somewhat resembled Whitney Houston’s however,aside from the fact Hyman lack Houston’s family musical pedigree. Hyman’s adult life was marred by romantic woes,mental illness and addiction problems. This led to Hyman’s tragic suicide in 1995 before she ever saw her 50th birthday. Still her music still connects with soul/funk music lovers with its spectrum of joy and pain.
After watching some of TV One’s series Unsung‘s episode about Hyman,it fairly quickly became apparent that throughout her recording career,record producers and songwriters simply didn’t know how to handle her voice. This tends to be a reoccurring theme with vocalists who are not in complete creative control of their songwriting and production. Her time in the late 70’s and early 80’s at Arista Records didn’t seem to be her happiest,as she and label head Clive Davis often clashed. Yet the two CD’s I have by her are her most commercially successful for the label. So I am going to overview them here today.
You Know How To Love Me/1979
Of course cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard Phyllis Hyman’s name dropped. And of course how little I’d actually heard of her. Well I blame myself. No good reason. I had this idea in my head she was primarily a balladeer. And there seemed to be a dime a dozen of those out there. Kind of the old idea about uptempo tunes dating fasted and slower ones being more timeless.
Well either way I must say that after hearing this album,I must say Phyllis was possessed of a vocal instrument defined by both great confidence and vulnerability. Now tonally? She’s a soul belter out of the blues/gospel school of singing. And her voice has a nice raspy huskiness to it that is actually quite appealing. Produced by James Mtume and Reggie Lucas I’d actually highly recommend this album as a possible first Phyllis Hyman album. There are reasons.
Two of those reasons right off the bat are the title song and “You’re The One”,both seriously intense gospel fueled Philly type danceable soul perfect for the disco floor and will have you singing to yourself with the same firey and intelligent tone as Phyllis herself. Of course there are two slower grooves here that blow me away too “Some May” and “Give A Little More” both find Hyman’s experienced voice working it’s way through some choppy sophistifunk type grooves.
On “Complete Me” it turns to this flat out epic type gospel/soul ballad type thing,the sort of sound I suppose I always associated with Phyllis. “But I Love You” has this tense and rather fanfare based disco-dance sound while the only song really bound by the era might be “Heavenly”. However nothing to worry about for the discophobes because even for them Phyllis gives it her all as she does throughout.
In the end the impression I get from Phyllis Hyman here is that she seems to function best as an album artist. Her vocal style has a need to stretch itself throughout the spectrum of soul musics sub-genres. And it’s a much wider spectrum than people think. Even within each off shoot of the music. There’s music here that has the ability the impact on fans of Philly soul,disco dancing and even foot stomping funk fans.
True it’s as bubbly and sophisticated a production as good champagne is to the taste. On the other hand every sound here serves to emphasize the talent whose getting the most credit. The participation of the Mtume band didn’t do any harm either. This was a recording oriented around a group of people with unique and special talent. And in this case,they got something extremely special out of Phyllis Hyman. So even if she’s not with us anymore,there’ll always be records like this.
Can’t We Fall In Love Again/1981
Admittedly I’m a bit late entering into the musical world of the late Phyllis Hyman. At this point? I actually only have two of her albums. She was one of those vocalists who moved between the worlds of jazz and funky soul. And always having an extremely talented bevy of instrumentalists at her disposal courtesy of her producer and original musical paramour Norman Connors.
Her entire creative approach matches up to the very qualities that have continually created some of the most dynamic and stunning music in the funk/soul/jazz/R&B spectrum. This 1981 album was her first of that particular decade. And upon locating it on CD? Picked it up without hesitation. Absolutely no regrets.
“You Sure Look Good To Me” is an extremely melodic horn and upbeat synthesizer based pop/boogie funk/post disco number-like a harder edged variation of the sound Richard Perry was then getting with the Pointer Sisters. The title song is a dynamic,Thom Bell like electric sitar led mid tempo love song duet between Hyman and the rich voiced baritone singer/bass player Michael Henderson.
“Don’t Tell Me,Tell Her” is a high stepping horn and slap bass Brazilian funk jam while “I Ain’t Asking” is an assertively romantic number from Ashford & Simpson-with their classic piano heavy and melodic early 80’s gospel/soul/funk style.
“The Love Too Good To Last” and “The Sunshine In My Life” are polished up,medium tempo pop/soul ballads while “Tonight You And Me” as a mixture of that Afro-Latin style drum and bass keyboard chorus of The Jackson’s “Shake Your Body” with a powerful post disco/funk/soul refrain. “Just Another Face In The Crowd” is a melodically epic slow pop ballad to conclude the album.
Well this is one of those albums where all eight songs are uniformly excellent,superbly produced and played on. Hyman herself provides the gospel/soul vocal phrasings of a jazzier and ballsier Dionne Warwick. At least to me anyway,and with an incredibly slippery and husky range as well. For lovers of early 80’s funk/soul music that’s powerfully performed and filled with a jazzy flavor? This might just be an album for you!
Phyllis Hyman offered us some fantastic soulful music. She also lived with bipolar disorder. And this possibly motivated her to end her life prematurely. For more information on bipolar disorder,or feel you may have it yourself,please go to the website below. Life is worth living!
National Alliance on Mental Illness’s Page On Bipolar Disorder